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Saturday, February 12th, 2011 09:35 pm

Ross Fitzgerald has an interesting piece in The Australian today on the current state of censorship in Australia; in particular regarding the four inquiries into the classification system. It is definitely worth reading.

Australia’s current laws governing censorship and classification are archaic and byzantine; more often reflecting the views of conservative religious groups than the general populace. Reading some of the comprehensive material on Australian censorship on Irene Graham’s website, Libertus, provides an idea of the extent of this and the conflicts between the federal and state classification systems.

Senator Guy Barnett from Tasmania, the apparent spiritual successor to the notorious Brian Harridine when it comes to censorship, is the driving force behind the current Senate Inquiry into the Australian film and literature classification scheme. The terms of reference for this inquiry indicate a review which will lean towards a conservative finding. For example, one of the earliest points (c), refers to enforcement and reports to law enforcement. Another point (f), refers to “the impact of X18+ films, including their role in the sexual abuse of children;” rather than simply “the impact of X18+ films;” that is what is known as a leading statement. This inquiry wants submissions which cater to the assumptions of Senator Barnett and the pro-censorship lobby, instead of representing the views of all Australians. Still another point (e) is aimed at applying rigorous censorship legislation to all content, including art, presumably in response to the debacle following the suppression of Bill Henson’s exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in 2008. The inquiry is aimed at applying censorship to outdoor advertising (h), music videos (i), song lyrics (j), television (l), the Internet (l) and mobile devices (m), amongst other areas not previously covered or covered by a specific inquiry (o).

The major classification review, though, is the Australian Law Reform Commission‘s National Classification Review, which was announced on the 21st of December last year by the Attorney-General and the Minister for Home Affairs. This one is unlikely to be completed before 2014 and seeks to be the most comprehensive review of Australia’s classification systems in decades.

Meanwhile, Senator Stephen Conroy called for a review of Measures to increase accountability and transparency for Refused Classification material, which he often disingenuously refers to as entirely “illegal material,” as a precursor to introducing mandatory Internet censorship legislation. There may be another review of Refused Classification called for by Senator Conroy this year, following the backlash against the proposed Internet filtering regime during last year’s federal election. This is in addition to his Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy’s Convergence Review.

The Senate Inquiry into the Australian film and literature classification scheme is due to report on the 30th of June and the deadline for submissions is the 4th of March. The Measures to increase accountability and transparency for Refused Classification material review closed its submission date last year. The close of submissions for the Convergence Review was the 28th of January. While dates for the ALRC’s National Classification Review and Senator Conroy’s second Refused Classification review are presently unavailable.

This is all, of course, in addition to the Attorney-General’s inquiries into An R18+ Classification for Computer Games, the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Amendment (Assessments and Advertising) Act 2008, the Classification (Authorised Television Series Assessor Scheme) Determination 2008, the Classification (Advertising of Unclassified Films and Computer Games Scheme) Determination 2009 and other aspects of Classification policy.

A citizen could be forgiven for thinking that the complexity and number of the reviews was aimed at stifling opposition to the agenda of censorship which currently runs rampant through Australian politics.

Most political parties in Australia have varying degrees of policy in favour of censorship, of which the most well known is the Australian Labor Party’s mandatory Internet filter. Of the currently registered parties opposing censorship, there is only the Australian Sex Party. The fledgling Pirate Party Australia is still seeking to join the fray. Like the Sex Party before it, the Pirate Party has encountered some difficulties with the registration process. Although not as anti-censorship on a policy level as the Sex Party or the Pirate Party, which both promote civil liberties in Australia, the Australian Greens have been vocal in their opposition to Internet censorship. The work of Senator Scott Ludlum has been considerable in this area.

One of the reasons why Australia has been able to maintain a thorough regime of censorship in comparison to most, if not all, other liberal democracies in the world is due to the lack of constitutionally guaranteed rights. There is no guarantee to freedom of speech, privacy or other rights which are frequently taken for granted in other countries. The only constitutional guarantee is that there not be a state sanctioned religion. There is privacy legislation and there have been High Court rulings on an implied right to political speech as necessary for a free and functioning democracy, but these things can be overturned by passing relevant legislation to do so.

Australia has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but made sure to include exceptions on Article 19. Even so, that and similar exceptions did not prevent the Australia’s treaty obligations from being used to overturn Tasmania’s anti-homosexuality legislation in the 1990s. It also hasn’t prevented the the United Nations Human Rights Council from publishing a draft review of Australia’s need for continued work to improve human rights for Australians, especially indigenous Australians and women. A number of countries have recommended constitutional reform, possibly including a Bill of Rights, in particular: Sweden, Hungary, Russia, Germany, Timor-Leste, Bosnia and Herzegovina. There were additional calls for other strengthening of human rights and civil liberties, including Australia signing and ratifying several treaties, which requires appropriate changes to legislation to meet the requirements of those treaties.

There’s clearly a long way to go in Australia on addressing issues of general human rights and civil liberties, let alone the more specific issue of censorship. One thing to remember, though, wide ranging censorship and a lack of freedom of expression makes the work on other human rights issues far more difficult.

Originally published at Organised Adversary. Please leave any comments there.